Friday, May 26, 2017

"Standards in Silhouettes" - the Kenton-Mathieu Alliance

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“... the sound of Kenton is the battle cry of a squadron of stratosphere-scraping trumpeters blowing with such fury that athletic cups must have been far more necessary than cup mutes; the grunt of a platoon of trombones exploring a hundred new degrees between low and very low; the soaring and searing sax stars, especially his succession of alto giants, who defined themselves by their own particular "take" on Charlie Parker (just as dozens of Woody Herman "Four Brothers" tenor stars defined themselves by their angles in relation to Lester Young); the killer drummers, who responded to the accusations of over-intellectualism by pounding with enough primitive force to knead all the pizza dough in Brooklyn - and parts of Staten Island.”
- Will Friedwald, Jazz author and critic

“Kenton recalled that : "Bill Mathieu was a young guy when I first met him. When he was only 16 years old he had written a first arrangement that he showed me. I was very impressed with his talents, and later on we brought him into the band as a writer. He was also in the trumpet section for a little while, but he didn't really play well enough, and it didn't work out. Bill had a very difficult time writing rhythm music ; he wrote a few swing things to pace STANDARDS IN SILHOUETTE, but they weren't very good, so I finally said : 'Bill, let's not worry about that, let's make it entirely a mood album.'"
- Michael Sparke, Peter Venudor, Stan Kenton: The Studio Sessions

Returning to the episodic favorite recordings theme, there are many albums by the Stan Kenton Orchestra that fit into this category especially those like Contemporary Concepts and Back to Balboa with Mel Lewis on drums.

But other favorites by the band such as Cuban Fire, New Concepts, and Innovations feature the band’s orchestral prowess rather than its swinging pulse and along these lines,  Standards in Silhouette sort of fits into this category but with a heavy element of “mood music” underscoring the texture of the arrangements by Bill Mathieu.

Stan’s was always an arranger’s band and writers like Rugolo, Russo, Holman, Mulligan, Graettinger, Roland, Paich, Niehaus, Barton, Levy, Hanna and many others walked in and out of the orchestra each contributing to the Kenton oeuvre along the way.

Bill Mathieu’s short time with the band produced primarily nine tracks that have been combined to make up one album and which have been variously described as “scholarly orchestrations” and “elegant structures” in the reviews that greeted  Standards in Silhouette which was recorded on September 21 and 22, 1959 in the ballroom of Riverside Plaza Hotel in New York City.

By way of background, here is how this landmark LP came about as described in the following excerpts from Stan Kenton - This Is An Orchestra! By Michael Sparke, [pp. 156-159].

“Also taped by the Stan Kenton Orchestra at the Tropicana/Las Vegas in 1959 was the first-recorded arrangement by newcomer Bill Mathieu of "This Is Always." Mathieu differed in many ways from your average jazzman: a well-educated, highly literate, intellectually minded philosopher, he would soon produce one of the most enduringly efficacious albums in the Kenton oeuvre. …

Stan was paying Bill Mathieu $60 plus bed and board, but Bill was finding it hard to meet his own aspirations. He longed to write rhythmic music and join the arranging elite of Mulligan and Holman, but nothing seemed to come out quite right, and rather than try to fix the faults, Stan preferred to simply junk the charts altogether. An exception was the Latin "What Is This Thing Called Love," heard on Tantara's Revelations, a good arrangement, but a genre already well exploited by Johnny Richards and others.

Jim Amlotte explained why Bill's early pieces didn't make it: "Stan made up his mind about a piece of music very fast. One take, one play-through, and that was it." Bill's breakthrough came when Mathieu found his own voice in San Francisco, though not in the swing style he had been aiming for. Recomposition [disguising standard melodies with an arranger’s own additional themes] was certainly not new to the Kenton band.


Graettinger had practiced the art in 1948, Russo (Mathieu's friend and mentor) in 1953, and Holman in 1955. But Bill discovered an entirely new approach to recomposing standard ballads at the same time as he discovered San Francisco: "Separated from the band and on my own in an enchanted city, an innate joy broke the surface like a gulping fish. Music poured through. I wrote an arrangement of 'The Thrill Is Gone' that I knew was good." Kenton too knew a good score when he heard one. "That's a beautiful thing, Bill," he said. "What's next?"

Mathieu remained behind in Chicago after an engagement at the Blue Note to continue his writing. "Willow Weep for Me" and "Lazy Afternoon" joined the growing number of arrangements, and one afternoon in the well of the band bus Stan casually remarked, "Bill, why don't you start thinking in terms of a record of your music?" At just 22 years old, Mathieu would be Kenton's youngest arranger to have an album of his own charts.

With such an incentive, Bill's inspiration took wings. During a two-week stay at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, the band rehearsed "I Get Along without You Very Well," "Django," "Lonely Woman," and "Ill Wind": "Stan is genuinely pleased. Everyone has a seaside glow. The band is swinging. Charged layers of cymbals and brass sift through the ocean air. Success is easy!" These were the halcyon days, before realization set in. By August the material was complete. ...

Standards in Silhouette was a triumph, different from anything else the band had ever played, yet uniquely Kenton in sound and style. The album rates alongside Cuban Fire, New Concepts, and Innovations as one of Stan's indispensable, all-time, great orchestral achievements. Mathieu has reconstructed these popular melodies with intricate care and detail. He extracts fragments from the songs and weaves these themes with his own motifs, using both sections and soloists, often in counterpoint. Short fill-ins by individual instruments (as well as featured soloists) are used as an integral part of the structural jigsaw. Especially exciting is the way the brass crescendos arise unpredictably, and often end unexpectedly, allowing a more peaceful but always appropriate statement to emerge from the melee. And the momentum is sustained without a lull over nine songs of concert duration, affording a consistency, a unity of style, that gives the music its own identity, so that it resembles a Suite.

Many elements fitted together to make Silhouette so perfect. Mathieu's charts are of course the foundation, but the music could not have come together the way it did without Stan's experience and expertise, and the orchestra's understanding of Bill's intentions. Every credit is due the principal soloists, who loved this music to a man. "Absolutely gorgeous," said Bill Trujillo. And Archie LeCoque (outstanding on my own favorite: "I Get Along without You Very Well") confirms: "I think my solos on Standards in Silhouette were the best work I did with Kenton. Bill Mathieu wrote such beautiful charts you didn't really have to stretch out too much, you just stuck close to the melody and the arrangements took care of everything else." And Bill himself adds: "I was very happy with all the soloists, but particularly Charlie [Mariano]. His playing, especially on 'Django,' provided the spark and the jazz authenticity that the album needed."

The above excerpts are a re-working in book form of the following insert notes that Michael wrote for Standards in Silhouettes - Stan Kenton: The Kenton Touch in A Warm Blue Mood Capitol Jazz CD CDP 7243 4 94503 2 5], and while some of the language may be the same as that used in the book, these notes also contain additional information.

“From the time he was 14 years old, Bill Mathieu knew he was going to write for Stan Kenton, a leader whose music he idolized with a fervor few ordinary fans could envisage. It wasn't an easy path to Kenton's door, and there were many setbacks along the way, but Bill Russo proved an effective teacher, with invaluable advice based on his own experiences of the Kenton psyche. It says much of Math ie us persistence that in January 1959, at 21 years of age and still something of an idealist, Bill Mathieu entered the real world as staff arranger for the Kenton band.

None of his first arrangements caught the Kenton imagination, until the time Bill discovered San Francisco. "Separated from the band and on my own in an enchanted city, an innate joy broke the surface like a gulping fish. Music poured through. J wrote an arrangement of "The Thrill Is Gone" that I knew was good. We rehearsed it one afternoon in Chicago, and Stan's ears perked up. "That's a beautiful thing, Bill," he said. "What's next?"

Mathleu's talent had enabled him to come up with the near-impossible, an original and especially beautiful slant on writing concert arrangements of popular ballads, that made them sound fresh and different. Kenton was genuinely impressed and eager for more, and as "Willow Weep For Me," "Lazy Afternoon" and others entered the book, suggested to Bill he should start thinking in terms of his own album—at just 22, the youngest Kenton arranger ever to be so honored.

Mathieu's special skill lay in almost recomposing standard melodies with his own additional themes, an art aspired to by many writers, but rarely accomplished with the flair and ingenuity that Mathieu achieves. Bill explained to me how he approached the task: "The trick is to locate the aspects of the original song that give you special pleasure, or that seem especially rewarding, and keep reworking them until a hybrid appears that is your own concept, but nevertheless allows your car to keep track of the source material. The 'aspects' might be a melodic phrase, a couple of chords, a characteristic rhythm, or even something in the lyrics, like the suppressed bitterness in "The Thrill Is Gone," the loss in "Willow Weep For Me," or the lethargy in "Lazy Afternoon." These are clues, and you run and spiral with them until your own ideas are braided with those of the composer and lyricist. Then you begin!"

There is a consistency, a unity of style about the orchestrations that give the music its own identity, so that it almost resembles a suite. Stan allowed Mathieu almost unfettered creative freedom, and together they decided the proper tempo for each piece, the appropriate soloists, and useful cuts and additions, right down to which titles actually belonged on the record and which should be omitted. At first Bill was doubtful about recording in a cavernous ballroom, as opposed to the intimacy and control of a studio, but he concluded: "Stan and producer Lee Gillette were absolutely right: the band sounds alive and awake {not always easy when recording many hours of slow-tempo music in a studio), and most importantly, the players could hear themselves well in the live room. The end result is that the band sounds strong and cohesive, and the album is well recorded."

Mathieu is well-served by his soloists, as he is quick to acknowledge: "To observe the guys endure the stress of recording with such a high degree of skill and accuracy made me feel very lucky. Their attitude to the music was quite positive as far as I could tell, and I was especially happy with the soloists, Roger, Rolf and most especially Archie. As for Charlie (Mariano), his playing, especially on "Django," provided the spark and authenticity the album needed." According to LeCoque (at his finest on "I Get Along Without You Very Well): "I think my solos on the Silhouette album were the best work I did with Kenton. Bill wrote such beautiful charts that you didn't really have to stretch out too much, you just stuck close to the melody, and the arrangements took care of everything else." There isn't a weak solo throughout, but note especially the trumpet cameo on "The Thrill Is Gone" by Roger Middleton, described by lead trumpet Bud Brisbois as: "The only solo Roger ever recorded with Stan. Roger was a very good jazz player, but he never got much of a chance with Rolf Ericson in the band."

In later years, Stan believed he had come up with the album title, but Bill remembers exactly how the name arose: "I had been walking the boardwalk in Atlantic City, trying to think of a title for the new album, something that carried forward the visual metaphor of Sketches on Standards and Portraits on Standards, when I paused to watch an attractive girl having her profile magically cut out of black paper by a silhouette artist. The title Standards in Silhouette occurred to me at that moment, and I suggested it to Stan in the well of the bus, 'That's a great title, Bill,' he said, genuinely pleased. 'Did you think of it yourself?' But it's OK with me that Stan recollects it as his own - that's an easy thing to do after many decades and uncountable miles."

Some hear a hint of Gil Evans in Mathieu's work, and Bill admits to an admiration for Gil's writing, among other composers who were striving to enrich the intellectual content of jazz without thinning its blood. Any Evans influence is tempered by Mathieu's highly inventive and scholarly orchestrations, and Bill has learned his Kenton lessons well; there is a wonderful contrast between the darkly brooding, low-keyed passages, and the high-powered trumpet climaxes. I certainly wish Mathieu had remained longer in the Kenton orbit, but instead he moved on to write for Duke Ellington, and then, such were Bill's intellectual abilities and interests, away from the jazz idiom into classical and other styles of music.

But it was Kenton's judgement that gave Mathieu his first chance, the legacy of this recording, as Bill recalls with gratitude: "I was a young, unknown and untested writer, and with Standards in Silhouette, Stan granted my truest wish: to bring my best work of 'concert' ballad arrangements into the public eye."
—MICHAEL SPARKE March 1998

Vinyl rip of Stan Kenton's 1959 record "Standards in Silhouette." Ripped with Audio Technica AT-LP60 USB turntable on Audacity.


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